03/26/2012 07:15 am ET Updated May 26, 2012

What The Heck Is AMS?

So, you've been lying awake at night, tossing and turning between lucid dreams of getting ridiculously high in Tibet with the local monks and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro barefoot. Well, before you strap on your backpack and take to the sky, learn a thing or three about Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), so your head doesn't get stuck in a perma-cloud.

Dear Dr. OTP, What is AMS?
Acute Mountain Sickness is your body's response to the decrease of oxygen when you're at high elevations (typically 6,500 feet or more). Even in its mildest form, AMS is akin to how you might feel the night after pounding tequila straight from the bottle and chasing it with gasoline. 

AMS is an equal opportunity hater. Although it is always best to be in good physical shape before going on a crazy mountain trek, AMS can affect Olympic athletes the same as your grandma. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to who is affected most, so if you plan on traveling over 6,500 feet, it's best to know a few things.

  • Slow and steady, baby. It's a pretty simple concept: The higher you are the slower you need to go. Even well-oiled, athletic machines get AMS, so take it easy.
  • H-2-O-yeah! Being hydrated is key. At higher altitudes you lose more water vapor from your lungs, thus triggering or increasing the effects of AMS.
  • Party animals beware: Alcohol, tobacco, opiates, barbiturates, sleeping pills, etc. are off limits. Intoxicants decrease your respiratory drive while you sleep and can seriously worsen AMS symptoms. If you need to self-medicate, try Diamox, an AMS-prevention drug that makes the blood more acidic and drives ventilation.
  • Most importantly, if you feel crappy, turn around. No one wants to drag you around a mountain.

The symptoms of AMS can range from mild to serious-as-a-heart-attack. Nevertheless, it is crucial that all symptoms be acknowledged and treated appropriately so you won't be descending the mountain on a stretcher.

A mild case of AMS is similar to having the flu; the symptoms blow, but are manageable and may include headache, nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue and weird sleep. As your body acclimates to the elevation, these physical annoyances should subside in two to four days.

Sometimes, your body doesn't want to listen to you telling it to stop sucking, and you are left struggling with a more serious case of AMS, known as HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). HAPE includes all the symptoms of AMS and adds a little breathlessness to the mix for some toxic flavor. This breathlessness occurs because there is fluid on the lungs and it can be fatal. If you start to feel like you'd fail a sobriety test without taking a sip of booze and are out of breath while standing still, get down the mountain.

Be smart and remember that you haven't been climbing mountains all your life like the locals, so don't be a poser. While AMS symptoms can be troubleshot with oxygen, or AMS-specific drugs, these solutions are like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. The best way to stay safe is to listen to your body and stop if you need to.

Well Worth the Risk
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
The Kilimanjaro region's got it all: rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine, desert and even glaciers. If glaciers aren't enough to get you going, than maybe the prospect of running into a variety of wildlife en route to the summit of the inactive volcano is. Plan on seeing several species of birds, monkeys, buffalo and even elephants on the way up.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Deemed the "Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu is one of the most important artifacts of human history. At 7,970 feet above sea level, it should be added to any must-see backpacker list.

An epicenter of political controversy, Tibet is the sovereign nation claimed by the Chinese military in 1950. Despite its sad history, Tibet remains an incredible destination for a balls-to-the-wall trek. Known as "the roof of the world," it's the highest region in the world and one of the most cultural and spiritual places on Earth. A journey to Tibet could elevate you in more ways than one.

Mount Aconcagua, Argentina
Part of the "Seven Summits Club," Mount Aconcagua is one of the most popular climbing destinations in the world. Although it's not one of the most difficult mountains to climb, the temperature extremes on the way up will make you feel like you earned it.

Mount Elbert, Colorado
In the good ole' U-S-of-A, the Rocky Mountain peak on Mount Elbert is the highest one we've got. Colorado is a climber's paradise, and Elbert is a summit worth bragging about, even overseas.

Don't let a little AMS get in the way of your trekking dreams. Now that you've got all the info under your belt, feel free to get high on your own supply. Just stop before you get the spins. Sure you can avoid AMS completely by staying sea-level, but living in a fear bubble seams like a waste of space. Besides, it wouldn't be as fun without a little risk of death anyhow.

-- Alex Weaver